The NFL’s Top Tight Ends

If you were asked to select one tight end to add to your favorite NFL team this fall, whom would you choose? Let’s review the top candidates.

Editor’s Note: Over the next two weeks, I’ll plow through various NFL positions to determine the one player I’d want over all the rest. Those positions include; RB, DL, DB, WR, LB, and QB. Apologies to the offensive line, special teamers, and fullbacks. It’s not that I don’t appreciate you, it just wouldn’t be much fun to write about you. Sorry.

Anyway, contract, age, fantasy value, and whether or not I despise the player will not influence my decision, nor will statistics and popularity. There’s no mathematic formula. It’s simply one humble man’s opinion. I’m picking the one player I want most on my team, regardless of what anyone else believes. Feel free to share your opinion. Agree, laugh, or call me a moron; it’s all welcomed. Debate is an excellent way to waste time. Just ask Congress….   Zing!

Here we go. In reverse order.

5. Chris Cooley Probably the most underappreciated player on this list, and one of the most underrated tight ends in the NFL as well. Is he a burner? No. Will he out-jump anyone? Doubtful. Still, he has great hands and is consistently one of the best performers at his position. You also have to wonder just how good Cooley would be if he were in a competent NFL offense, something the Redskins haven’t had since Joe Gibbs’ first tour of duty. A decent quarterback wouldn’t hurt, either. When the list of quarterbacks you’ve played with reads Mark Brunell (past his prime), Patrick Ramsey, Todd Collins, Jason Campbell, Donovan McNabb (past his prime), and the infamous Rex Grossman, well, let’s just say you’ve REALLY earned your stats.

4. Jermichael Finley You know in your keeper fantasy league draft when you pass over a proven talent in the latter rounds to take a shot at a high-potential player, hoping he’ll pay off and reward you the following year? Jermichael Finley is that guy. While he’s only experienced limited success to this point of his young NFL career, he has all the tools to terrorize defenses for the next 6-8 years. Finley can out-jump anyone else on the field, he can run, and he’s big enough to eat opposing defensive backs for dinner. 2010 was supposed to be Finley’s coming out party. Unfortunately, a knee injury derailed his season, landing him on injured reserve. With Aaron Rodgers poised to usurp Manning, Brees, and Brady at the top of QB Mountain, Finley should finally reach his potential this year. If not, then feel free to add him to the other 6,283 tight ends with amazing physical abilities that never figured it out. Or, as we like to call it in Philadelphia, the “L.J. Smith List.”

3. Vernon Davis I might be reaching here, but I really like Vernon Davis. After looking like a bust three years in, Davis lit it up in 2009 with 78 receptions and 13 TDs. He didn’t have quite the same impact in 2010, but that can be attributed to more defensive attention and inconsistent quarterback play. Like Chris Cooley, Davis has performed admirably despite a pooh-pooh platter at quarterback (Alex Smith, Trent Dilfer, Chris Weinke [seriously.], Shaun Hill, J.T. O’Sullivan, Alex Smith [again], and Troy Smith). Davis proved in 2010 he could still impact a game with defenses keying on him. On the other hand, if Frank Gore stays healthy and Michael Crabtree develops some game, Davis should find even more opportunities to make plays. Some consistency at QB wouldn’t hurt, either. Regardless, I love Davis’ talent and, since Mike Singletary caught his attention, his drive.

2. Antonio Gates The most prolific tight end in the NFL, and it’s not really close. Nagging injuries are all that have been able to contain him. In 2010, Gates was on pace to break the NFL record for TDs by a tight end before shutting it down due to foot issues. How important is Gates to San Diego? Put it this way: If Philip Rivers still sleeps with a stuffed animal at night, you can be sure it wears a Chargers 85 jersey.
Despite his 6-4, 260 frame, Gates’ body is deceiving. He’s as quick as a wide receiver, too fast for linebackers, and too big for defensive backs. As a former basketball player, he wins any jump ball. His size and leaping ability make him invaluable in the red zone. Gates is an unstoppable force. It killed me to drop him to number two, but, like most everyone else on this list, he’s not a tremendous blocker. Which leads to me to my number one choice…

1. Jason Witten As an Eagles fan, admitting Witten is the best at what he does was obviously painful. Unfortunately, when you look around the NFL, there are two types of tight ends. The type that stick to the line of scrimmage and pass protect, and the type that function as wide receivers, only with bigger bodies and smaller egos (except for you, Kellen Winslow Jr.).  Witten is the only one who excels at both. It’s not as if he’s average at one and decent at the other, either. Witten is an AMAZING blocker, and probably the third or fourth best receiving tight end in the league. If you like stats, Witten led all NFL tight ends in receiving in 2010. (To be fair, both Gates and Dallas Clark suffered injuries.) His teammates love him. He does whatever is necessary to help his team win. Plus, as he proved in Philly a few years ago, he doesn’t need a helmet to rumble 20 yards down field while trampling opposing defensive backs along the way. If you simply want a great receiver, Antonio Gates is your man. As an NFC East disciple, I need the gritty intangibles from my tight end as well. Jason Witten has it all. Now, if we could just get that ugly star off his helmet.

Honorable Mention
Dallas Clark – An elite receiving tight end with speed, brains, and “did you see that catch” hands. I left him off my list because he doesn’t block and he’s catching footballs from a guy that makes any tight end, receiver, and practice squad call-up look like a perennial Pro-Bowler.

Tony Gonzalez – Still solid, but glory days are behind him.

Marcedes Lewis – Probably doesn’t belong in the same conversation, but I kinda/sorta/maybe think he turned a corner last year. I have a soft spot for monster tight ends with athletic ability.

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